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"Man, I been waitin' five years for you to call me!"
That, according to John Hammond, was G. Love's reaction when Hammond called him to ask if Love would produce what would become his latest album, Push Comes to Shove. On paper, the pairing of Hammond, an icon in the blues world with over 30 albums in more than 40 years to his credit, with G. Love (real name: Garrett Dutton) might seem a bit perplexing, especially to purists and longtime Hammond fans, who might worry what corrupting influence a more contemporary popular artist like Love might have on a musician so heavily steeped in tradition.
As if to fulfill those fears, Push Comes to Shove contains a song with hip-hop elements. But before coming to any conclusions, one needs to consider that Love is just as heavily steeped in the old-school tradition. For Love, in fact, Hammond is part of the tradition. So much so that Love has professed to owning every record Hammond has ever put out — and on vinyl, no less.
"He's a friend of ours," explains Hammond, who first met Love at one of his own gigs. As the story goes, Love, then under 21, had gone to a club to watch Hammond perform but did not know what he looked like. He approached Hammond and his wife, Marla, to buy drinks for them. Thus, a longstanding friendship was born.
"We've watched him become a musician," Hammond says. "We called him up to see if he'd even be interested. He's not really a producer as such. That's not his main focus, but he saw that we were really prepared."
Love was particularly excited about the fact that Hammond came to the project with five original songs already written. As fans know, five songs is an unprecedented high for Hammond, who only started writing songs at all in 2003 and then only stuck his toe in the water with one original, which appeared on the David Hidalgo-produced album Ready for Love that same year. He then followed with two originals on the follow-up, 2005's In Your Arms Again.
Hammond largely credits his wife and creative/business partner with his newfound surge in creativity. Marla has had direct, hands-on input into Hammond's work for the past 14 years. "That's about eight records or so," Hammond chuckles.
It started with a song about a car. "When David Hidalgo was involved, I tentatively wrote the song 'Slick Crown Vic' that referred to the first car I ever bought and the adventures that ensued thereafter. She [Marla] encouraged me to do that. I wasn't sure that I could. Everybody in the band said 'Gee, this is a good song,' so it gave me confidence. And for the next project we had, In Your Arms Again, I wrote two more tunes.
"After all these years of making some classic stuff and not-so-classic, or more obscure, tunes my own," he continues, "I realized that I had the experience and the way of phrasing things to make my own songs. Even though they're within that blues tradition, it's still my own little take on it. She's been very encouraging. When I see her smile, I feel good."
Songwriting is a whole different way of looking at things, Hammond suggests. "For years, I knew so many great songs. I also knew people who were prolific songwriters. It was a little intimidating for me. I was kind of awed. I hung out with guys like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Sebastian, Tom Waits. These guys write songs like... it just comes through 'em. They admired me for knowing all these songs, but I never saw writing as my fate. I felt very comfortable as a blues singer that could knock your socks off. I will never be Bob Dylan or John Sebastian or Tom Waits, but I can put words together. For the next album, I hope to have all my own songs."
G. Love, who was Marla's suggestion in the first place, joins an illustrious list of artists who've produced Hammond, including, besides Hidalgo, J.J. Cale and Tom Waits.
"I look for somebody," Hammond says, "who knows where I'm at, what I like, what my strengths are. It's kinda hard to put your finger right on it. I mean, so much has to do with chemistry and who you're working with. I mean, these are guys who I admire."
But how much of a challenge was it to work with Love, who is not only much younger but also a fan?
"Oh, I admire him too," Hammond answers. "He's not just some kid. And he really has knowledge of [the] blues and where I come from. He's more sophisticated than his age would suggest. He has a lot of poise."
Love also learned how to manage studio time with more experienced musicians. Everyone on the team except for him — Hammond and his longtime sidemen Steven Hodges and Marty Ballou on drums and bass, new keyboard addition Bruce Katz, and engineer Oz Fritz —- went into the project intent on working daytime hours.
"G. Love was talking about, 'How 'bout we begin about 5 in the evening?' " Hammond recalls with a laugh. "I was like 'Ehhhh, we're all kind of older than you, man.' He's into being up all night, and that wasn't our thing. Our latest days went till about 8 o'clock."
Not bad, considering that Push Comes to Shove was completed — from start to finish, from recording to mastering — in nine days in an antiquated little studio built by Frankie Valli.
"The room that had the 24-track analog board in it is rarely used anymore," Hammond says. "Upstairs, there's another room that's got all ProTools. And they mostly record rap there. There were some characters hanging out. It was kind of wild. There was no elevator, and we were two big floors up, so we had to pay extra for the piano!"
It's clear that Hammond, who is amiable and relaxed in conversation, had a good time. He sounds grateful and even perplexed at times over where music has taken him. "My whole career's been pretty heady," he says.
Hammond's upcoming appearance reunites him with old friend Jorma Kaukonen, who appears with Hot Tuna.
"To be down in Florida in August is not my ideal time to be there," he laughs. "But I went to school with Jorma. I was 18, he was 19, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was 1960 and '61. He could play already, and I used to watch him. I did not play the guitar when I got there, but I saw everybody playing acoustic. It was the folk-revival time. I said, 'I'll give it a shot,' so I got a guitar, and a year and a half later, I was playing professionally. Jorma and I have remained friends ever since, 47 years — yikes!"